Business intelligence

: In the wake of the telecommunications boom, Axiom Telecom is embarking on an ambitious expansion. The company is relying on business intelligence (BI) tools from Cognos to help underpin its plans.

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By  Sarah Gain Published  September 20, 2005

Axiom Telecom, part of Al Bannai Enterprises, is looking to more than double its number of retail outlets by 2006, and will use the Cognos BI tools to improve its reporting functions across the entire business. The company’s rapid growth presented a potential problem for Axiom as margins on its mobile phone products could change rapidly, with phones being replaced by new technology or new fashion trends, and its systems were simply not able to keep up. “We have a rapidly expanding, dynamic business where information is key, but our margins can change from day to day,” says Paul Green, CFO at Axiom Telecom. “We felt it was critical to have timely, accurate information regarding our performance in all aspects of our business.” Axiom already had in place Vision, an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system based on an Oracle database, and was relying on a combination of Excel spreadsheets and Crystal Reports for its reporting needs. According to Green, these applications alone did not provide a system agile enough to cope with the demands of the company’s exponential growth. The legacy system’s use of static reports meant too many valuable man-hours were wasted in the laborious process of changing and updating the information. As a result, more advanced applications were required in order to fully leverage the ERP’s benefits and streamline business processes: “We needed to have a strong BI tool sitting on top of our ERP system, which had to be easy to use even for a non-technical line manager.” In working to retain its position amongst the leading distributors and retailers of mobile phones and related products in the Middle East, Axiom has been maintaining strong relationships with an array of major vendors including Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Motorola and Samsung. By combining these vendor relationships with service provider alliances, Axiom has been able to provide complete solutions to its customer base and since April, when the company picked up distribution rights for Saudi Arabian operator Mobily’s products and services, Axiom’s growth has been strong. “We are the largest mobile wireless retailer in the Middle East with over 200 retail outlets across the region, and the target is to have 500 points of presence across the region by the end of 2006. Obviously with a business of this size we need crystal clear visibility across all our operations,” enthuses Green. For Axiom, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) will continue to be at the heart of its drive to expand regional presence, as the company has already established a fast-growing network of retail outlets in the Kingdom, which is expected to reach 150 points-of-sale (POS) by the end of this year. In addition, a flagship concept store, located in the Ibn Battuta shopping mall in Dubai, will lead Axiom’s investment in upgrading its retail operation, and it is hoped the roll out of five further outlets across the UAE by the end of the year will also add to the consolidation of Axiom’s position in the region. Green is keen to see the company continue to broaden its reach geographically across the entire Middle East, and also recognises that the ongoing deregulation of telecoms markets throughout the region is pushing the company to increase its range of value-added products and services as it faces amplified competition. “It is our goal to drive wireless mobile connectivity in the Middle East and that can only be achieved if we can deliver expert advice to customers, and provide them with value for money products and services. All this is only possible with the right IT backbone for support,” he acknowledges. Like many of the region’s businesses, Axiom has recognised the importance of intelligence to achieving its business objectives, and in order to support its sustained growth, the company turned to the BI market to provide a solution that could boost transparency and speed in the delivery and analysis of reports. As far as the company was concerned, the selection of a suitable package came down to a simple choice between offerings from two vendors. “As we looked at the market, we saw that there were two clear leaders: Cognos and Business Objects,” says Green, adding that it was the professionalism of the Cognos implementation partner, Performance Systems that helped to seal the deal. “In terms of functionality and capabilities the two were very similar. The key in making the decision was that with an investment of this size, we needed to feel confident that our needs would be met,” he explains. To complete the project as quickly as possible, three consultants from Performance Systems worked in conjunction with Axiom’s business managers and inhouse IT team to implement the Cognos ReportNet and PowerPlay BI solutions, completing the initial phase of the deployment, which covered Axiom’s wholesale and retail business, in under five months. The roll out of the reporting tools to customer service units has been finalised over recent weeks, and Axiom’s business planning and analysis managers now have ownership of the system, which has been operational for a month. The installation of the software and migration of data from the legacy system proved relatively problem-free, although Axiom will have to continue to fine-tune the solution to meet its needs. “The rapid growth of the company has been a challenge to the implementation, presenting something of a moving target. The expansions continued to bring changes to our original project plans. We had to keep rethinking and readjusting as we went, and it will be a matter of continually updating the solution in order to leverage the tools’ fully in the future,” says Green. Ease of use is the most frequently reported barrier to the widespread use of BI tools, according to a recent survey by Information Week Research, and Axiom was keen to ensure this did not hinder its less technically savvy employees. Many of the company’s key managers were not familiar with the concept of BI, so the company undertook employee training. “BI cannot be utilised effectively unless the data feeding the metrics is clean and correctly formatted. To ensure we avoided any data-quality issues we have had to provide training to employees company-wide,” explains Green. “Performance Systems provided training at the managerial level to improve their technical knowledge and we are still carrying out user training sessions inhouse to pass this understanding on to the rest of the staff.” Axiom has already come a long way from the limited flexibility of the previous, time-consuming systems, which often left managers waiting for days for certain reports. While in the past reports were lengthy and difficult to produce, the PowerPlay application is proving a valuable tool, enabling specific types of reports to be generated in many different ways and easily adapted to fit the users’ requirements. The flexibility and consistency the tools offer not only save time for employees, but also provides a vital new degree of transparency for company managers. Furthermore, since the solution allows the creation of high-speed reports for factors such as stock and sales performance, profitability analysis and stock aging on a daily or weekly basis, as well as offering a holistic approach to various types of report, the company has gained a reliable insight into the functioning and efficiency of its business processes. “This improved understanding and visibility will allow us to reduce our stock levels considerably. In turn this means we can improve our pricing and our ability to trade at higher margins. All this, of course, will ultimately give us a greater competitive advantage,” Green adds. Indeed, by investing in BI tools, Axiom has achieved the ability to better monitor its own business performance. Improved planning and information sharing makes it possible for its management to access and evaluate business performance quickly and accurately, and this information will help the company piece together an accurate picture of the company’s progress and growth on a day-by-day basis. “We can make realistic predictions for growth and identify opportunities for improvements. Our managers have the ability to create self-service reports, and to access these anywhere, even while they are travelling,” Green says. “This will be a key enabler for us in exploiting opportunities and building actual commercial growth.” In the future, Axiom Telecom will continue to look for business tools that can contribute to the streamlining of its operations as it goes on both developing its revenue streams and expanding geographically. There are plans for the gradual roll out of the BI tools to the company’s other business streams so that the tools are available across the entire business by the end of 2005. In addition, although historically the different databases for all Axiom’s operations in the Middle East ran on the same ERP system, the information was stored separately on dedicated servers in each individual location. To ensure it exploits the opportunities offered by the new applications to the full, plans are now being finalised to move the vast quantities of data Axiom now has at its disposal to centralised servers based in Dubai. Even before these improvements get underway, however, Green is confident that it will not be long before Axiom sees a return on its US$72,000 BI investment. “In the grand scheme of things it was not a very expensive project but the benefits it will bring will greatly improve our bottom line. The improvement we are seeing as a result of the deployment should mean the tools pay for themselves within the first three months of operations,” he states.

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